Writing Muscles

Fast writing is not a gimmick–there are some tips than can make any writer more productive.

More years ago than I like to mention these days, I started writing computer games. The deadlines cracked whips that could get a crew in a Roman galley up to speed for water skiing. Over the years, those deadlines have given me “writing muscles.” It’s like this–you don’t run the marathon without training for it, and you don’t do the 50-yard dash in under ten seconds without muscles that’d put a cheetah to shame. Well, a lack of training is all that’s keeping you from getting that 130,000 word book done in less than ten years or knocking out a story a week (the way Science Fiction great Ray Bradbury used to when he was building his writer’s muscles).

So, how do you get these muscles? Put away those weights. The exercises I’m about to give you happen only at your keyboard.

First–you are now an athlete in training. This means that you must PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR BODY. Frequent, small meals keep my mind sharp. I avoid fats and sugar, functioning best with starches, such as pasta, rice and very little protein. I go light on any alcoholic beverage and limit the caffeine, unless I’m facing a late-night, last-minute deadline. And I make sure that I get enough sleep. Facing a blank page or computer screen with a sleep-dulled mind is a great way to do Zen meditation, but not much else.

On your day off, you can dig into those chocolates and cookies and wine and live it up. But don’t be surprised if you find yourself not liking those ‘treats’ as much as you used to. Training quickly becomes habit–and you’re conditioning your body to like writing.

Next, establish a habit of “warms-up” that begin every writing session. Your main writing muscle is your brain, and you’ve got to give it a chance to settle into writing mode.

Warm up start on by writing something. So sit at your desk and write one page. Of anything!

Write a page from the book you’re currently reading. (This is a great way to limber up and subconsciously gain insight into ‘how does she do that’.)

Write a page of what’s going on in your head.

Write a page that describes any conversation you ever overheard.

Write a page that describes any person you ever met.


Each week, increase this goal until, first thing off, boom! You write five pages. This is a religious routine. Do it until it’s automatic. But these five pages do not count as your regular pages. These are your warm-ups.

Then, after you’re warmed up, look at your current project. Go over the last five pages you’ve written. You can only make minor edits–changing a word, correcting a sentence, fixing a misspelling, marking a place that needs more research. If anything in those five pages needs major work or makes you want to throw it out–don’t! Instead, write the word EDIT in big, bold letters and go on.

Now, to stretch your muscles. Your initial goal is not to do ten pages a day. Would you try to run ten miles without being ever running and doing well at a single mile? Your initial goal is to do ONE MORE PAGE each week than you consider productive and comfortable. Push past your comfort zone by easing past it. If you consider two pages a day good, set your goal to three pages a day. Keep pushing. Don’t say, “I’m a slow writer.” You become your labels–so start saying, “I’m a fast writer.” Don’t worry if what you write is good or bad–just write it. The time for editing is when you have something to edit.

Plan your training. If writing short romance is your goal, work those sprinting muscles. Once a week, write one entire short story. Yes, one story. The story can be any length. But you must write the entire story–beginning, middle and end. Write only the first draft. Write without thinking, “this is good” or “this is bad.” Just write a story. Don’t fret over characters or point of view. Use the characters from your favorite TV show. Rewrite that ending for the movie you saw and didn’t like. This is an exercise. No one’s going to see it, so just have fun! And next week write another story. Work on this story the same day every week, so that your mind starts getting ready. Do it on your worse day–if Wednesdays are usually unproductive, do your story every Wednesday. You are training your writing muscles, working them out, so that they become productive no matter what.

If you want to write longer fiction, your exercise is–write every day. And write only one book at a time. This is important. You are training for a marathon here. You need endurance. You need to learn how to start the a long course and finish it.

If you’re not used to writing every day, start by writing for five minutes every day on your book. (Everyone has five minutes, so no excuses here.) The next day, write for ten minutes. By the end of a week, you’ll be up to 35 minutes a day. Stay at that speed for a week, then boost it to one hour the next week, and so on until you’re working a minimum of two hours a day. You can get a lot done in two hours-and even more, if you’re fast.

That’s your second exercise. Even when writing long books, you still need sprinting muscles. So in addition to your regular time on your book, once a month you’re going to do the sprinting exercise. But with this small change–your goal is to write a ten page story in one day. That’s right–one ten page story. This can be any story–even a childhood fairy tale that you remember, or a story about what happened to you at the car wash last week, but you’re going to write it. The point is to show yourself that you can do it.

These days, I joke that I don’t have time for writer’s block. In fact, I’ve found two tricks to keeping my writing muscles loose and working every day. First, always stop in mid-sentence and mid-scene. (It worked for Hemingway, so it can work for you.) The other trick is that you must write something. No sitting and staring at an empty screen. If you can’t think of how to describe a scene, write dialogue. If you can’t think what the characters should say, write description and narrative. If you can’t think how to do a scene or what should happen, just write what you want to have happen. If this scene isn’t working, change character viewpoint or write about why it isn’t. If all else fails, outline. But you must write. You must write even if your head is empty. You must write even if it is only for the next five minutes…and then the next five minutes…and then the next five minutes. All those five minutes add up.

Just like your characters, you need motivation. Money is one of the best incentives I know to get any writer working–oh, that lovely cash. But a writer who hasn’t yet sold is missing this prime motivator–which is why you’re going to start paying yourself.

Set your pay according to what you can afford, anything from a dollar to ten cents per page. You must pay yourself once a week. And you must put your pay into a visible “piggy bank”–something made out of a clear plastic is perfect. Now if you don’t think that’s much money, add it up. For a 400 page 100,000 word manuscript you’ve earned between $40 and $400 dollars! Even if your thrifty soul screams at this, even if it’s a stretch to make the paycheck cover the bills, you must do this. You must pay yourself something in order to know bone-deep that you are making money! Pay is what makes you know that you can earn money with your writing.

There is one catch–you can’t spend a nickel until after you finish your first draft and do a second-draft edit to smooth all scenes. On the day you write THE END and you’ve removed all those “EDIT” notes you had left, that’s when you open up that piggy bank and celebrate. Spend the money on anything you want–a triple-scoop sundae, new clothes, a writing conference.

Make your writing place comfortably yours. Athletes need good equipment to compete. You don’t see Florence Joyner on the track in ratty cross-trainers with broken shoe laces. Get that pocket dictionary by your desk, buy yourself that wrist rest, make sure your chair and desk are at comfortable heights. This is an investment in yourself and your career. You don’t have to do this overnight. Start with cheep equipment and trade up as you get better and need better equipment.

If you don’t have a computer, make it a priority to get one. On a typewriter, 65 words a minute is my max. (and don’t even count the errors). With a computer, I can push 120 words a minute or more. Computers increase productivity. And they’re getting cheaper by the day–particularly the second-hand models. There’s no way I could produce as much work as I currently do without a computer.

When you take a vacation–or suffer an illness–ease yourself back into your training schedule. You’re an athlete making a comeback, remember. Nothing is more likely to cause a block than to think you’re hitting one because you normally produce ten pages in a week, only this week you barely got two done. When that happens, back up in your training program. Go back to basics. You can strain your writing muscles by working too hard when your out-of-shape.

In each writing session give yourself short breaks. The key word here is short. Get up, walk outside, stretch your back, have a glass of water. Then get back to work. You’ll be more productive for it. I have about four to six good hours of work in me, but I spread that out over eight to ten hours. Learn what your own pace is–watch how you work on the most productive days and copy that pace to make every day just as productive.

There are other techniques you can use–most of them you’ll discover by just observing how you like to work and customizing your training program to work for you. Just remember one thing–a muscle gets stronger with use. Your goal is progress. It’s no good if you spend all day exercising, but only do it once a month. Sure, you get some benefit, but you’re not building long-term muscle. Same goes for writing. It’s a lot harder to write when you don’t do it very often. And, by pushing yourself for a little more each time you flex those muscles, you’ll soon wonder why you ever thought it was so hard just to write a few pages.

One thought on “Writing Muscles

  1. Pingback: Learn to Write Fiction » Blog Archive » Build Your Inventory - #3

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